The Battle for the Human Soul


Graphic from IHT.

The International Herald Tribune ran a fantastic article today, which illustrates the increasing futility of religions maintaining their doctrines of mind/body and spirit/matter dualism. As the pieces fall into place for the neural correlates of consciousness, the need for supernatural explanations for the soul falls further and further by the wayside. Some religious figures have partially ceded this authority (at least in terms of bodily evolution) to science:

In 1950, in a letter to bishops, Pope Pius XII took up the issue of evolution. The Roman Catholic Church does not necessarily object to the study of evolution as far as it relates to physical traits, he wrote in the encyclical, “Humani Generis.” But he added, “Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”

Pope John Paul II made much the same point in 1996, in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an advisory group to the Vatican.

Although he noted that in the intervening years, evolution had become “more than a hypothesis,” he added that considering the mind as emerging merely from physical phenomena was “incompatible with the truth about man.”

Pope Benedict went even further in his denial of science recently, asserting that “the universe was made by an ‘intelligent project’ and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order. But Benedict’s view becomes more untenable by the day:

The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is “unassailable fact,” the journal Nature said this month in an editorial on new findings on the physical basis of moral thought. A headline on the editorial drove the point home: “With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.”

Or, as V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it in an interview, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as it is usually spoken of, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans – all that is complete nonsense.” Belief in that kind of soul “is basically superstition,” he said.

Even presidential candidates have to profess this kind of superstition to get elected, it seems. But it is getting harder and harder for them to do so as the contradictions become more glaring. For example, at what point in evolution did proto-humans get a ‘soul?’ If we accept that humans evolved, then we have to resolve that either humans have no soul, or all living beings have souls. And why limit that assumption to animals? By that way of thinking, I suppose plants and single-cells have to have souls also–which is what supports the doctrine of life beginning at conception. But even this doctrine has problems: if we agree that life begins at conception and humans share more than 99% of their DNA with some animals, then why is slaughtering those animals OK, but not humans? The contradiction makes your head spin. This is why the religious are forced to hang onto their doctrines of duality and human exclusivity (the so-called divine ‘spark’ that makes us human, that god breathed into Adam…). If they allow that humans might not have ‘souls,’ everything–and I mean everything–unravels.

Haught, who testified for the American Civil Liberties Union when it successfully challenged the teaching of intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism, in the science classrooms of Dover, Pennsylvania, said, “The way I look at it, instead of eliminating the notion of a human soul in order to make us humans fit seamlessly into the rest of nature, it’s wiser to recognize that there is something analogous to soul in all living beings.”

Or, as I would prefer, we could forgo the notion of a soul altogether. What do we mean by a ‘soul,’ anyway? That part of us which lives on when we die? No one’s ever seen one, no one’s ever come back to tell us about it. No verifiable communication with the dead has ever taken place. We must therefore conclude that the concept of an ‘immortal soul’ is the ultimate wish-fulfillment-fantasy–which is why letting go of it presents such a problem for most people that they’re willing to go to war about it. Letting go of the ‘soul’ means letting go of dreams of eternal life.

I tend to look at the human ‘soul’ (if we can call it that loosely), as what Kurzweil has described as a pattern, a stationary wave like we might see in a mountain stream as the water hits a particularly shaped rock. Our particles change over our lifetime, but our memories and the patterns of our personalities stay intact. If you see someone you haven’t seen in 10 years, you are actually seeing them for the first time, since there are no molecules left from the last time you saw them. But their personality and features are what we still recognize as their ‘soul.’ In this sense it IS separate from the molecules of flesh of the person, but could not exist without the structure of that flesh any more than the stationary wave could exist and hold its shape without the water.

This pattern then is what composes the human (or animal) soul, and in reality, it can’t help but to die with us. Afterlife fantasies keep alive the philosophical need for a soul not attached to the body or explainable by its functions. This fantasy is the root–as Dawkins would say–of all religious shenanigans and evil. As every thought, feeling, morality, and longing becomes tied by scientists to their specific neurochemical and structural correlates in the body, we will find this harder and harder to accept.

As a last-ditch-effort, the faithful can try to retreat to the old standby, non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)–but it won’t last:

For scientists who are people of faith, like Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University who is a Roman Catholic, asking about the science of the soul is pointless, in a way, because it is not a subject science can address.

Miller said he spoke often at college campuses and elsewhere and was regularly asked, “‘What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” His answer, he said, is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.”

Religions will have to choose between accommodating the undeniable facts of human nature or becoming marginalized. Being the adaptive memes that they are, expect many if not all religions to eventually come around as a matter of survival. Then they will have to move their philosophical goalposts and find some other area of ‘mystery’ which can remain safely off-limits to physical or materialistic explanations.

My favorite challenge to the concept of souls will be the rise of strong AI. While this admittedly sci-fi scenario is by no means certain, the creation of such personalities on a non-biological substrate would drive a silicon stake into the heart of the ‘soul.’ This is set to play out in the next 15-20 years. If and when we have rich AI’s talking to us, raising our children, expressing their opinions, helping us, composing music, writing screenplays or political satire or falling in love with us, (and we with them), it will be kind of hard to imagine that they don’t have souls. Then some of us may ask ourselves, with Philip K. Dick, “do androids fantasize about an electric afterlife?”

Comments (6 comments)

olly / June 27th, 2007, 9:40 am / #1

It’s Meme time again Sean, tag you’re it:


Black Sun Journal » Archives » Do Stem Cells Grown From Unfertilized Eggs Have Souls? / June 30th, 2007, 12:46 am / #2

[…] Bloody bollocks! That’s what I say about this article by Brandon Keim. Having to refute this ’soul’ stuff is getting so tedious. It’s unscientific, confused, and meaningless. It’s pure conjecture. Mother Goose rhymes for people who have never taken the time to understand the facts of life: The question, then, resolves around the meaning of life, of Pacholczyk’s “human being.” The blastocyst — the scientific term for the group of cells descended from a fertilized egg at four to five days of age — contains about one hundred cells. It has nothing resembling a brain; but even if this is not considered a privileged locus of personhood, neither does the blastocyst have anything resembling … well, anything. […]

Bronze Dog / July 11th, 2007, 2:50 pm / #3

“But if there’s no silicon heaven, where would all the calculators go?”

Trying to remember where I read the article, but I remember someone doing some idle speculation about AI, and dismissed the standard sci-fi / space opera plot premise of robots deciding humans are “inefficient” or that it’s “logical” to kill off humans. If there’s a robot/human war, it’ll be about emotional religious opinion, not logic. And either side could hold an aggressive opinion, since emotion is an emergent property of intelligence.

I thought it was a decent piece.

BlackSun / July 11th, 2007, 6:50 pm / #4

Bronze Dog,

Have you read Kurzweil? Emotions are indeed an emergent property of intelligence. But hopefully AI will have critical thinking skills designed in.

Kurzweil’s book was titled “The Age of Spiritual Machines” because he thinks it’s inevitable they’ll have spiritual feelings. I’m not so sure about that part. But most everything else in the book rings very true.

valhar2000 / August 3rd, 2007, 5:19 am / #5

Emotions are indeed an emergent property of intelligence. But hopefully AI will have critical thinking skills designed in.

I am not entirely sure of that. Emotions are an essential emergent property of known intelligence (and of unintelligent life forms).

What I mean to say is that even though emotions are a Good Trick (as Dennet woudl say), such a good trick that they have appaeared in the natural world all over the place, it is not inconceivable that we could create an intelligent machine, or a machine capable of rational thought, that had nothing or almost nothing comparable to an emotion, and was devoted entirely to rational discourse on whatever topics its keepers direct it to.

Such a machine would, no doubt, be inefficient and useless if forced to make a living by itself in Nature, which is why we never see animals like that, but I see no reason to suppose that it could not be made, and that it could not be of great use to people.

On the other hand, even if I am wrong and any intelligent machine must have emotions, I certainly see no difficulty in designing it in such a way that it will be completely loyal to humanity (or a part of it). I find entirely beleiveable that if you can create a being at all, you can create one that cherishes it’s status as an oppressed slave, and sincerely delights in it.

BlackSun / August 3rd, 2007, 8:53 am / #6


We could certainly design AI’s as submissives. But I’m not sure we would want that. Some people might.

I’m thinking more along the lines of two classes of AI’s. Narrow AI’s for specific purposes which would not be sentient and therefore could be owned and operated like machines. Broad AI’s which would have full sentience and access to human-like emotions. Since self-awareness would give these AI’s their own agendas, they would need to have full rights of personhood as if they were human.

If a human wanted an AI companion, they would have to choose between one with its own emotions and will (which would be more dynamic like a person) and one which could give them the programmed responses they wanted. The difference would be that the one with emotions would have needs like a human, and could leave the relationship if unsatisfied.

It will be an interesting scenario to see how this plays out–both in technology and law. It should have some very interesting social implications as well.

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